Holmes and Watson leave the semi-Victorian comforts of Baker Street far behind and head off to 1940s America in search of a microfilm hidden inside a matchbook and which ends up doing the rounds of Washington’s high and low society as our heroes try to beat enemy agents to the prize. George Zucco, who played Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) returns, albeit as a different villain, while the script was co-written by Bertram Millhauser, who would become a major contributor to the Universal series.
The following is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.
Universal Sherlock Holmes # 3
Conan Doyle Source: not canonical
Sample dialogue: “I shall write a monograph someday on the noxious habit of accumulating useless trivia”
Original filming dates: Started filming on 8 July 1942
This was the third, last and least of the entries in the series of Holmes and Watson adventures starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce made for Universal Studios that sought to re-imagine the original stories as World War 2 tales of anti-Nazi espionage and derring-do. The war would get a mention now and then but in the next nine films the emphasis instead would be on a more Gothic style, divorced from everyday realities, retreating instead into a rich and fascinating ersatz Victorian universe only vaguely set in the 1940s.
Dr. John H. Watson: “It’s clear as mud to me.”
The original working title was Sherlock Holmes in U.S.A. though it takes a good 25 minutes before the great detective and the good doctor make it across the Atlantic. They first stop at the home of a missing British agent (mild-mannered Gerald Hamer as the unassuming Alfred Pettibone), which has already been infiltrated by enemy agents, realising that he has secreted the all important documents as a microfilm in a book of ‘V for Victory’ matches. When they do make it to Washington we get one of the most macabre scenes in the series, when a packing case is sent to Holmes’ hotel – and inside is the dead body of the man they were looking for.
Comedy is supplied in the form of Watson’s reactions to American culture as he sucks on milk shakes, chews gum, reads comics and tries to pick up local slang (with predictably maladroit results). The film provides a good role for Clarence Muse as the train porter who helps Holmes reconstruct just how Pettibone passed on the all-important matchbook to the newly engaged society gal played by Marjorie Lord, who makes for a spunky leading lady. Henry Daniell, who played a politician in Voice of Terror and would go on to play Moriarty in The Woman in Green (1945), is here one of the henchmen working for George Zucco, an art dealer who turns out to be Nazi sleeper agent Heinrich Hinckel. It is one of the amusing if very daft elements of the plot that it imagines that a German enemy agent from the first world war would still be employed by the Nazis decades after what might be politely termed something of a ‘change of management’ back in the Fatherland.
The standout sequence is a party scenes among Washington’s high society in which the matchbook keeps getting passed from person to person, all of them unaware that the Nazis are right there trying to steal it. The climax, in the art shop (with Holmes initially trying to pass himself as a rather prissy expert) is a bit of a damp squib and is definitely over-extended, as are the tourist scenes which are made up of Rathbone and Bruce in front of a process screen looking at stock footage various monuments.
There is compensation to be found in the shape of a good cast and some amusing jokes, but this is never the less a rather sluggish entry, one which fails to really capitalise on the changed surroundings and which has far too simple a plot. It would in fact be the last entry set int he US, though one of the best of the subsequent titles in the series (The Scarlet Claw) would see the duo travelling to Canada. Things would definitely pick up nicely with the next film in the series, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943).
For my dedicated microsite on the Universal Sherlock Holmes series, click here.
DVD Availability: Available in terrific editions on DVD and Blu-ray the world over, derived from the restorations made by UCLA. All look decent – some, such as Sherlock Holmes in Washington, look absolutely terrific.
Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Howard Benedict
Screenplay: Bertram Millhauser, Lynn Riggs
Cinematography: Lester White
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson), Marjorie Lord, Henry Daniell, George Zucco, Gerald Hamer, Clarence Muse, Ian Wolfe